CIA drug sting that never was

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IT WAS meant to be a classic sting operation against the drug runners - only they left out the sting. Instead, the US government approved the import of a ton of almost pure South American cocaine into its domestic market - funded by the American taxpayer and courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The bungle happened in 1990 but only became public last night, when the CBS investigative programme 60 Minutes told the sorry tale of how an effort to infiltrate the Colombian cocaine-trafficking cartels ended up as a bonanza for US drug dealers.

The idea was to set up a CIA-run smuggling operation in Venezuela, out of the agency's own anti-narcotics offices in Caracas. A joint US-Venezuelan team bought up 3,000lb of Colombian cocaine for clandestine delivery to the US market. In this way, it was argued, the Colombian suppliers of the drug would be lured into a trap. Alas the trap was never sprung. Despite objections of the Drug Enforcement Agency, another arm of US government, deliveries took place under the formula of 'uncontrolled shipments' whereby the cocaine would be delivered without interference, to remove all suspicions.

The scheme only stopped when over-zealous US customs officials, who evidently had not been informed in advance, inconveniently seized a final shipment of 1,000lb at Miami airport in late 1990. But some 2,000lb, with a street value of dollars 80m (pounds 54m) or more, had already gone through, to be lost without trace. It was, a CIA statement acknowledges, 'a most regrettable incident'.

The head of one agency officer has already rolled and another has been reprimanded. Admittedly there is the consolation that, as far as can be established, nobody in the CIA made money from the affair. But that alone will do nothing to deflect growing congressional demands for closer scrutiny of CIA operations, notably of its drug-fighting activities.

Just last week, it emerged that a Haitian intelligence agency created by the CIA under the very same programme that produced the Venezuelan fiasco had itself gone heavily into the drugs and terrorism businesses.